It’s been well over a year since I left Google. People keep asking me how it’s been, what I’m learning about work, about myself, and about life. Here is an initial attempt at answering some of these questions.
The first thing I wanted, needed, and received after exiting Google was quiet time. The opportunity to decompress and live a slower life for a while. After twelve years at the pace of a company in hyper growth, it was surprising to notice how different my body started to feel when I wasn’t always on overdrive. I think I must have had a constant baseline of not-so-healthy tiredness during many of these years. I only noticed the severity of it when it started to lift. My nervous system seemed to rearrange itself. I feel more relaxed and energetic now. Probably the state it’s supposed to be in compared to the frantic demeanor and constant tension I seemed to carry before. It feels like a very different way of being, and I’m hugely grateful for the experience. It also gives me a lot more compassion for my clients, and a visceral experience of boiling frog syndrome that’s hard to forget.
Just before leaving Google and during said quiet time in the months after, I was hoping for some things to emerge: new experiences outside of the Tech industry, becoming my own boss, and stepping into a more balanced life. Doing the work I really love with great people while making a difference in the world. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed. I keep saying that life has rewarded me for being brave.
What I’m most surprised about is the fact that the work I’m now doing is not fundamentally different to some of what I did at Google, but it feels very different. Freedom and choice are important to me, and even the most flexible company can’t provide the kind of freedom self-employment offers. Yet I think it’s more than that and maybe identity related. Perhaps the person I thought I needed to be at Google is different from how I show up now. Who knows. What counts for me these days is the way I feel when I get out of bed (well, most days) – excited and inspired to do meaningful work.
Another big surprise has been the amount of people who have approached me and shared in confidence their desire to do something different professionally. Even the folks who look like they absolutely love their jobs and couldn’t be happier. Some very senior people who seem to have it all. I heard things like “I really admire your courage, how did you do it”, or “I wish I could leave, too, but my family depends on me financially”. It makes me sad to think that people suffer in silence and continue to grin and bear. And I can relate to that. After all, I did it, too. And the grass is always greener on the other side. Yet it makes me wonder about the appeal of working in big organizations, where with growing size it becomes increasingly hard to nourish connections, celebrate quirkiness, and find meaning while everything is becoming more streamlined, efficient, and profit-oriented.
Most of us business people seem to be conditioned to drive for rapid growth and faster results, yet we also share a yearning for belonging and purpose. I often get asked how to keep a healthy company culture during rapid growth. So there is definitely a desire in the market to do something about it. Yet the fear that it could be at the expense of revenue can be paralyzing and counter-productive. I’m not saying that we can’t have great company culture at scale, but I seriously doubt it when the focus on increased profit and short term results trumps everything else. When we’re happy about overachieving quarterly targets yet feel empty inside or less hopeful about the future, it’s not an easy place to be. At the same time, it’s an invitation to wake up and experiment how we can influence the system around us and foster more of what’s really important to us.
My Own Hesitations
On a more personal note, it’s hard to believe how easy it has been to let go of a regular paycheck, benefits, and the sense of security that comes with generous corporate compensation. Ever since I entered the workforce it was important to me to get paid well. I would say I have a higher need for financial security than many other people I know. This was the main reason I was worried I’d regret quitting my permanent job. In hindsight, while the need to provide for myself is real and valid, I sometimes wish I hadn’t let it keep me stuck for so long. Interestingly, as I look back, though it felt like I wasn’t moving in the right direction fast enough, staying in-house was an important time of deepening my professional expertise, personal growth, and meeting new people that are now a key part of my life.
Sometimes I wonder if the fear was actually a friendly protector to keep me safe long enough to provide a solid foundation for my own business. I wish I had trusted the process rather than fighting with myself on a regular basis. The voice in my head that said I needed to hold on to my job in order to make a good living had some pretty hefty arguments with the voice in my head that called me a coward for not leaving the nest. While they were at war, it was hard to get in touch with the essence of me that knew I’d be ok no matter what.
One of my other worries before going out on my own was the fact that it seemed like it could be a lonely existence. I loved and admired many of my coworkers at Google, and most of the time, I did better as part of a team. Yet I didn’t let that fear stop me. I was trying to be strategic about overcoming it by looking for co-working spaces or joining professional associations in order to create community. But it played out differently and I totally lucked out when the great folks at Cultivating Leadership invited me to join their network. This was the softest landing into independence I could have possibly had – working with and learning from people who are not only super bright and innovate leadership development in so many ways, but who are also kind, wise, and fun.
What’s Different Now
I now have a much wider variety of clients. Most of them are senior leaders. They are in software, hardware, biotech, education, media, and the not for profit sector. With that comes a different, maybe more nuanced view of Silicon Valley and the impact it has on the world. I learn so much about what my clients create every day. I’m seriously impressed by their brain power, ability to innovate, and genuine intent to do good in the world. I see the impact. Most of it is amazing. Some of it kind of scary. It’s bound to be a mixed bag when you trail blaze and don’t have a template. I wonder whose job it is to define ethical guidelines and practices and put some additional guardrails in place that may be needed now. Of course we’re all responsible for what we create. It may be impossible or at least very hard to predict the consequences since we’re operating in so much complexity. Yet we may not always try hard enough to widen our lens and pay attention to more than the successful launch date of our current project, and that concerns me at times.
What’s also changed in this new life of mine is that my workload comes in peaks and troughs. I have a lot more flexibility. That’s something I really wanted, so I give myself a pat on the back for creating it. Sometimes, I can go to the beach on a Tuesday afternoon, or spend a month in Europe. I feel a lot more excited and energized about life, knowing I don’t have to repeat the old pattern of overextending myself during the week and forcing myself to relax at the weekends so I can do it all over again. The natural rhythm of the way my work ebbs and flows is taking care of recovery time by itself. At least most of the time. Of course I get overwhelmed, too.
Yet when it’s quieter, I get quieter and have more capacity to listen and pay attention to what’s important. To notice when I’m in and out of alignment. To inquire into what life is asking of me. To be with everything including the hard stuff. It’s not always smooth. My old strategy of numbing out when things got hard was to work more and put extra hours in. I’m trying to resist that urge now and be patient with what is arising. In service of getting to know all the different dimensions of myself better. Which in turn helps me become more present with my clients.
A Wider Perspective
Everything that happened in the past year has helped me mature and become a more experienced practitioner of the work I do. I’ve been an employee in the corporate world for so long, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve learned a lot and had a ton of fun during many of those years. I have huge appreciation for the people I work with now, the systems they find themselves in, and the daily demands, especially on leaders. I have a deep desire to support my clients in a way that serves them and the world in the most generative way. Taking the leap and letting go of the perceived safety of permanent employment has helped me build more tolerance for the unknown, and the capacity for presence that comes with it. Stepping away from my job has helped me gain a much wider perspective and a renewed sense for possibility and adventure.